On Sunday March 10th, I woke up to my social media feed congested with terrible news from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. An Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 157 passengers had nosedived to crash shortly after taking off, killing all on board.
It took a few hours to fully comprehend, an airline with a near perfect safety record, with a near perfect new aircraft on a near perfect weather and only a few minutes after taking off. But it eventually hit, hearts were breaking worldwide.
Ethiopians everywhere mourned the loss of lives, but that wasn't all, they also braced for the worst in how the world would react to the tragedy. The world didn't disappoint. Beside the western media highlighting how many of their own were on board the doomed flight with little to no attention to everyone else who perished with them, some people reverted to saying what Ethiopians silently feared the most. That they were not surprised.
Nerves were touched.
Many Ethiopians, myself being one, engaged in debates in comment threads with people that echoed misconceptions about the airline, the country, even the continent. Filled with grief for the perished and fear for the airline's reputation, we reacted to it all. With conviction, we engaged anyone who doubted the safety record and overall accomplishment of Ethiopian Airlines, a national pride and joy. Called out news outlets for their unevenly rationed sympathy while reporting about the victims of the crash. Confronted those who referred to Africa as if it were a county and saw fit to fit everyone and everything about it in one big box of disappointments. Most seemed to stick to their ignorant and narrow minded comments and a few admitted to having corrected their outlooks. It was too painful to read and realize. Even more painful was the need to defend.
In the midst of engaging strangers in comment sections, I couldn't help but notice the deja vu. It felt like I had been there before. I realized my dear country of birth was doing just what I have habitually done for most of my life. The act of soliciting validation.
It may seem far fetched to see the parallel in a personal story and that of a whole nation's but bear with me, it will all make sense once you draw it.
As much as I used to think I had to, I haven't lived a blameless life. (surprise!)
Mistakes big and small, gifts of imperfections are woven into the fabrics of my past. Although I am now grateful for the human they've helped shape, that wasn't always the case. On the contrary, for every blemish I exhibited, I engaged in a mission to convince people of my inherent worth. A mistake or lack had with it an irresistible craving to slave in an effort to override it, in order to fix possible damage to how I appeared to others. Until I became aware of my tendencies the past followed me everywhere, with it's dominion over me in tow.
Why, you may wonder? As a small girl, a teen and even a young adult, my sense of self was solely built on high regards and complements. In the wise words of Cornelius Lindsey, "If you live off a man's compliments, you will die from his criticism" or in my case of severe dependence, just from the withdrawal of them.
Well, my country is no different.
Ethiopians grow up believing there's something inherently noteworthy about us.
Ethiopianism is a not merely a birthplace nor a citizenship. It's an identity rooted in pride. It's also sticky and complicated. It's a place away from which you immigrate and yet be more patriotic about as if you are a solider fighting for it's freedom. A melting pot of identities thats still figuring out how to let it’s individual rays shine while still bound together in a beam.
A black nation that remained free while colonial powers divided the world for themselves, the archeological wonder that is Lucy we call our own and making our country the cradle of humankind, our success on world stages of long distance running, our cuisine and diverse cultural display with a unique hue that lacks comparison. All of these and so much more we are happy to flaunt, gladly taking ambassadorial duties upon ourselves wherever we may be.
However, we are very well aware of the vastly outdated grim imagery of famine, civil war and severe poverty that is seared onto the world's psyche by news media that doesn't bother to update its viewpoint. We are constantly chanting out loud the traits that make us exceptional, the strides we have made and continue to make, all the while inevitably needing the world to notice those and only those if possible. Preoccupied in reasserting who we are, determined to remind the world that it's gotten us wrong so fiercely that it's almost as if we don't really believe it unless it responds with a seal of approval.
The world seems to be in no hurry to catch up. But the rigor with which we defend our country and anything good that represents it is ever more palpable. It's felt in the tone of my voice while responding to a woman I met in North Carolina who wondered how come I had "quite a lot of meat on my bone for an Ethiopian", it's vivid in the display of Ethiopians descending upon another who exclaimed that African countries have "the worst airlines".
We carry our nerves on our sleeves and an a world that chooses to remain ignorant also seems to enjoy messing with them.
While setting the record straight is not a bad thing, I say we stop engaging with the world from a place of seeking it's validation. Rather look within us, truly own our greatness and leave the past behind regardless of the who is coming on board or responding in the affirmative. Nobody owes us a confirmation of evolution but there sure will come a time when the world can't and will not deny nor ignore it.
Now is a great time to reassure ourselves. Yes, Ethiopian Airlines has been a success story the kind of which we haven't offered the world before it and I don't doubt it will continue to be so. Ethiopia is experiencing a rise even through the setbacks we face. Every developed country has had a period of time where it fought wars, sustained tragedies, experienced economic depression and much worse. But none succeeded in changing their narratives while invested in their image, rather through hard work rooted in the knowledge of their worth to deserve better and potential to get there. We must be patient with our metamorphosis as we strive to do better.
For me, this paradigm shift is in recent memory.
The moment I understood the power in not needing to substantiate my growth as long as I am indeed growing, my life changed for the better. I want the same for my country.
Because although we have come far, we still have a unity to perfect, poverty to eradicate and unhealthy mindsets to shift. Let's get about that business and the world will adjust.